When he first started teaching ethics as a side job, Iowa pastor Dr. Thomas Johnson couldn’t have known that this assignment would lead to him writing a seminal book on human rights and eventually working with the Vatican.

During the six years that Johnson was planting and pastoring Hope Presbyterian Church in Iowa, the church wasn’t always able to pay him  a full-time income. To supplement, Johnson used his graduate training in ethics to secure part-time jobs. One of these jobs was teaching an ethics class at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

Hired just two days before classes began, Johnson was handed a curriculum and texts that reflected a secular viewpoint, and was told to teach ethics to 18- to 20-year-olds, most of whom were moral relativists with little background in the Bible.

Drawing on the works of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Helmut Thielicke, and Charles Hodge, Johnson began to bring his Christian convictions into class discussions. He believed that since the moral law is built into creation (Romans 1), “unbelievers do not fully believe their own unbelief.” So, he began to challenge his students. For example, he once gave an “F” on what he called “a rather good paper” to a young woman who claimed ethics is entirely a matter of taste. He told her she had convinced him of her philosophical claim, and that it simply “tasted good” to give her the “F.” It dawned on her that she didn’t really believe her claim, that there are no universal moral laws that must be followed.

From Teacher to Religious Freedom Ambassador

In 1994, as a missionary with Global Scholars, Johnson took what he had learned in Iowa to Minsk, Belarus. There, he taught philosophy at a public university. Thirteen years later, on a teaching assignment in Turkey, his life took another turn. A student who had signed up to take his theology class was martyred. In response, he transformed lessons dealing with Western secularism and communist ideology into a book that explores religious persecution.

That book, “Human Rights: A Christian Primer,” has become a standard on the subject. Since its publication, Johnson has engaged many religious leaders and diplomats on religious freedom and human rights. And in March 2016, the 600-million-member World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) appointed Johnson, a member of the PCA’s Heartland Presbytery, as its religious freedom ambassador to the Vatican. One of his first contributions is the joint publication of a second edition of his book by the WEA and a Vatican-based human rights institute.